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[Photograph: Miki Kawasaki]

It wasn't long ago that buying nut butter at the supermarket meant little more than the choice between smooth or crunchy (and rarely anything other than peanut). Maybe, if you were so inclined, you could grab the "natural" stuff in glass jars. And if you wanted to be truly daring, you could seek out Nutella, with its promises of European, hazelnut-laden decadence.

Oh, how times have changed. On the shelves where you used to find little more than Jif and Skippy, there's now a dauntingly vast array of spreads. Like the non-dairy milk phenomenon that preceded it, the non-peanut nut butter movement started out as a few modest soy and almond based offerings, but soon blossomed into a wave of products made from increasingly eclectic ingredients and fancied up with all manner of add-ins.

Although this proliferation of nut and seed butters has been spurred, in part, by an increasing awareness of peanut and other food allergies, it's not the only driving force. There are a number of reasons why you might want to consider these spreads, even if it isn't a dietary necessity. Want to add a bit of moisture and texture to a cake? Go for almond butter. Need something that can bind together your veggie burger? Try cashew or walnut butters.

With so many options available nowadays, it can be tough to discern between different nut and seed products and their defining qualities. In the interest of making sense out of the wide variety of nut and seed butters out there, allow us to guide you through the different kinds you're likely to encounter in supermarkets, specialty stores, and online.

Buttery Basics

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[Photograph: Lucy Baker]

Most nut and seed butters are created by grinding the kernels until they're finely textured and have released their natural oils. Salt, sugar, or larger nut or seed pieces (for crunchy butter) may also be added into the mix. But the variables don't stop there—there are a number of other factors can affect the character of the finished product. Here are a few things to keep in mind when shopping for or looking to make your own nut butter.

Raw vs. Roasted

Most store-bought butters indicate on the label whether or not they're made with roasted nuts or seeds. Roasting "opens up" a nut or seed's natural oils, causing structural changes that allow the solids to fracture more easily and make it easier to digest. Roasted butters are also usually easier to grind to a smooth consistency and will have those deep flavors that you can only get from a nice browning.

Butters made with unroasted ingredients, in contrast, tend to have that hardy raw flavor that just isn't quite as complex as its toasted counterpart. It's worth noting, though, that many believe raw nut and seed products contain beneficial nutrients, antioxidants, and enzymes that are reduced or killed off when heated.

Fats: The Thick of It

If it weren't for their concentration of fats, ground nuts and seeds wouldn't be so gosh darn easy to spread (and eat). The presence of these fats has a significant effect on not only the richness of a butter, but also its consistency. The thickness of a butter depends largely on the overall natural fat content of a nut, as well its balance of saturated and unsaturated fats. Nuts that are especially high in unsaturated fats (such as macadamias and pecans) tend to produce looser, thinner butters.

And as if the presence of nuts and seeds' natural fats wasn't enough, many commercial producers of nut butters will add in other oils stabilize their products or create the impression of a creamier mouthfeel. Palm oil and safflower oil are especially common and can be found in many nut butters, including those labeled as "natural." Some may also include hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (the stuff that gives the brand-name, "non-natural" nut butters their ultra-silky consistency and prevents them from separating).

Regardless of the fat content of your butter, it's always a good idea to give it a stir before using so as to evenly distribute the oils amongst the solids. If you ever feel that the butter is not thick enough for your liking, placing it in the fridge will help stiffen it up (and also keep the oils from going rancid).

The Skinny on Skin

Many nuts and seeds have a layer of skin covering them (think the dark brown stuff on almonds, walnuts, etc.). This is the seedcoat, or bran, which contains antioxidants, fiber, and tannins that protect the embryo, or "meat" of the nut or seed.* Although this skin is perfectly edible, it can create a bit of mouth-puckering astringency, which some people find unpleasant. If your butter is flecked with dark spots, this likely means that at least some of the skin was left on during grinding. Some butters, like those made from craggy walnuts and pecans, are pretty much guaranteed to have a noticeable amount of tannic qualities.

Looking to find the nut butter that's right for you? Read on to learn about the joys of pulverized pecans, crushed cashews, and more!

*Fun fact: most of the foods that we call nuts, like pistachios, almonds, and walnuts—are not actually nuts in a taxonomical sense, but seeds. And even when it comes to true nuts—hazlenuts, for instance—the edible part housed within the shell is still technically referred to as the seed.

Almond Butter

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Almond butter has a particularly long and noteworthy history. In Nuts: A Global History, Ken Albala traces its usage back to the medieval Islamic world and Europe, where it was widely adopted as a substitute for dairy products on fast days. Today, it's the most widely available nut butter (other than peanut), with a number of brands competing for shelf space in supermarkets. Its mild flavor makes it a versatile addition to both sweet and savory recipes.

What It's Like: Mellow, milky, and grassy, with a slightly loose consistency.

Best Uses: Use it as a topping for crudités or as a spread on sandwiches. Almond butter's mildness also makes it an easy addition to cakes, cookies, and other baked goods, where it can provide both a bit of sandy texture and moistness. It can also be used to thicken soups and smoothies. Have some extra? Our tips on how to use up that almond butter

Cashew Butter

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Cashew butter is catching up to almond in terms of variety and availability—nowadays, even some of the major, name-brand peanut butter manufacturers offer their own line of cashew butters.

Cashews trees are native to Brazil, but were disseminated to other warm climates by the Portuguese beginning in the 16th century; cashews and cashew butter-like products continue to be featured in those cuisines to this day.

What It's Like: Light, sweet, and rich, with a distinctive, full aroma and slightly pasty texture.

Best Uses: Cashew butter can be used to make savory, tahini-like sauces and incorporated into creamy curries. It also has plenty of sweet applications, such as in sorbets and in baked goods like these krispie treats.

Soy Nut Butter

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Soy nut butter is made primarily from roasted soy beans blended with oil (typically soybean oil). Many of the commercially available brands are quite good analogs for hydrogenated peanut butter. This doesn't come as much of a surprise, since soy nut butter was widely pushed as an alternative to peanut butter following poor peanut harvests in the 1980s. Soy butters usually achieve that silky smooth texture by going through a colloid mill, which breaks down the bean solids into tiny pieces that get suspended in oil.

What It's Like: Creamy and deeply savory, like peanut butter, but with a less pronounced nuttiness.

Best Uses: Use it as a substitute for peanut butter—SNB&Js, anyone?

Sunflower Seed Butter

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Sunflower seed butter is made from the kernels of sunflower seeds (those little nubbins that you find inside the tough outer hull). Like soy nut butter, it first appeared commercially as a peanut butter alternative in the 1980s, with the added hope that it might help boost sales of sunflower seed products following a decline in American exports of the seeds. You'd be hard pressed to mistake it for peanut butter, however. In addition to having a thinner consistency, it has that unmistakable sunflower flavor. It's available both roasted and raw, with the raw versions often sporting rather curious shades of green.

What It's Like: Imagine dumping half a bag of sunflower seeds into your mouth and chewing thoroughly—you're either going to love or hate that distinctly bitter and earthy taste.

Best Uses: Use it in salad dressings, in a sauce for vegetables, or as an alternative to tahini—just make sure to pair it with something that will stand up to its bold flavor. It also performs well in granola bars and certain baked goods.

Macadamia Butter

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Compared to other nuts, macadamias are exceptionally high in fat and low in protein, containing more monounsaturated fats that any other edible plant. This makes for a butter that is luxuriously rich in taste and nearly liquid in consistency. The nuances of its oils tend to get lost easily in combination with competing flavors, however. This means that the butter is best used simply as a topping or in mildly flavored, creamy desserts. Macadamia butter has a slick and dull mouthfeel when ground completely smooth—it might just be better off left a little bit crunchy.

What It's Like: Delicately floral, tropical, and buttery, with a loose, oily sheen.

Best Uses: Spread it on bread or fruit; tuck it into sweet sandwiches (such as with brie and fruit or preserves); use it as a topping for ice cream or other creamy desserts.

Walnut Butter

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Walnut butter is rather unlike other nut butters. The nut's tender meat grinds down into a soft, crumbly, and stiff paste that is a little tricky to spread, but still pleasantly thick and creamy. A good deal of the skins tend to make their way into the butter, giving it a noticeable astringency. Walnuts are especially high in polyunsaturated fats, which are prone to going rancid—store this one in the refrigerator.

What It's Like: Dense, woody, and very creamy—almost to the point of chalkiness. The skins add a pronounced tannic finish.

Best Uses: On its own, walnut butter is intense stuff—gussy it up with white chocolate, cinnamon and sugar, or other add-ins for something less aggressively astringent. It also generally works well in place of peanut butter in cookie recipes that call for mixing it into the batter. It can be used to help bind and add texture to veggie burgers.

Pistachio Butter

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Whole pistachios are rather noble nuts, but eating them by the mouthful is a task usually impeded by those bunglesome shells. Fans of the greenish kernels will likely enjoy pistachio butter, which delivers that addictive flavor by the spoonful. Hardy, coarse, oily, and crumbly, it's not optimally designed for spreading. But when blended with some soft cheese or butter, it will go down oh-so-smoothly.

What It's Like: Earthy, herbal, and pleasantly bitter, with a concentrated flavor. Pistachio butter is a shade of mossy green that we might even call fetching.

Best Uses: Blend pistachio butter with chèvre, cream cheese, or butter for a dip or spread. It pairs well with mozzarella, basil, and tomato or can be used as a base for pesto. And there's probably a baklava, halva, kulfi, or ice cream recipe out there that's just calling its name.

The Crack Troop

We'd be remiss not to give a shout out to marzipan, frangipane, pistachio cream, nocciolata, and other nut pastes, particularly those with pastry applications. They may not be nut butters in the strictest sense, in that they possess a coarser texture or contain additional ingredients. But they are nevertheless closely related in their nutty charms.

Do you have any favorite nut or seed butters and special uses for them? Are there any varieties not mentioned here that are worth a try? Have you had any success making your own nut butters at home, or is the stuff in a jar good enough? Let us know in the comments!

Many thanks to the folks at Fastachi for their assistance with research for this story.

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